Could California’s AB 5 Get Cut Off? Ninth Circuit Ruling Keeps Case Alive

When I hear the name Lorena, my mind automatically goes back to 1993, which is probably true for many men about my age. That’s the year when Lorena Bobbitt brought a kitchen knife into the bedroom and cut off her husband John’s member while he was sleeping. She then tossed it in a field near the house, alerted police where to find it, and became an overnight celebrity for having taken revenge after years of alleged domestic abuse.

John later tried to cash in on the detachment, forming a band called The Severed Parts and appearing in two pornos called John Wayne Bobbitt Uncut and Frankenpenis.

It was a different Lorena who grabbed headlines last week, when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals considered whether it’s unconstitutional to pass a law because of personal animus.

The law is California’s AB 5, and the Lorena is former California assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez. As a quick refresher, AB 5 is the California law that imposed a hard-to-satisfy ABC Test for determining independent contractor status. Lorena Gonzalez, a driving force behind the bill, was vocal in her animus toward rideshare and delivery app companies.

In Olson v. California, the rideshare and delivery app companies sued to invalidate AB 5, arguing that the law contained dozens of exceptions targeted toward a grab bag of industries, and their exclusion from the list of exemptions was due to animus toward them, rather than reason.

This might have been a hard argument to make, but for Lorena. Congresswoman Gonzalez made frequent public statements against rideshare and delivery companies, claiming they mistreated workers by not classifying them as employees. Gonzalez said she was open to including exceptions in the bill, but not for these companies. The legislature then passed an exemption for other referral-based app businesses, but not rideshare or delivery, even though the business models are basically the same. A few other vocal lawmakers joined Gonzalez with similar public statements targeting the rideshare and delivery app companies. It’s the old familiar “[insert name] said the quiet part aloud” story.

Last week the Ninth Circuit ruled that personal animus is not a legit reason to pass a law. The Court wrote, “We are persuaded that these allegations plausibly state a claim that the ‘singling out’ of Plaintiffs effectuated by A.B. 5, as amended, fails to meet the relatively easy standard of rational basis review.” The Court was referring to the standard used for evaluating equal protection claims under the Constitution. It does not advance a governmental interest to pass a law out of a desire to harm a politically unpopular group of citizens.

The Court’s ruling did not overturn AB 5. The ruling sent the case back to the district court, which will have to reopen the case against AB 5.

For now the law remains in effect, and there is no immediate impact to businesses in California. But the fight to overturn AB 5 has fresh legs and some momentum.

In other words, businesses in California are still subject to the ABC Test — unless you’re a licensed insurance business or individual, physician, surgeon, dentist, podiatrist, psychologist, veterinarian, lawyer, architect, engineer, private investigator, accountant, registered securities broker-dealer or investment adviser, direct sales salesperson, commercial fisherman working on American vessels for a limited period, marketer, human resources administrator, travel agent, graphic designer, grant writer, fine artist, payment processing agent, still photographer or photo journalist, freelance writer, editor, or cartoonist, licensed esthetician, electrogist, manicurist, barber, cosmetologist, real estate licensee, repossession agent, recording artist, songwriter, lyricist, composer, proofer, manager of recording artists, record producer or director, musical engineer or mixer, vocalist, musician engaged in the creation of sound recording, photographer working on recording photo shoots or album covers, independent radio promoter, newspaper distributor working under contract with a newspaper publisher, newspaper carrier working under contract either with a newspaper publisher or newspaper distributor, contracting party in certain types of business-to-business relationships, or referral agency other than for rideshare or delivery — all of which are subject to possible exemptions.

And so you can see the point. The exemptions are a mishmosh created by special interests and lobbying efforts, with no coherent overall theme — except to make sure rideshare and delivery apps are subject to the ABC Test.

We’ll continue to follow this case. Meanwhile, if you’d like to read more about the original Lorena and the incident, there’s a Lifetime movie, an Amazon docuseries, and a whole bunch of articles.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

© 2023 Todd Lebowitz, posted on, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.


Ten Things That Should Be In Your Staffing Agency Agreements But Probably Aren’t

As promised during the Master Class session last week, here are Ten Things That Should Be in Your Staffing Agency Agreements But Probably Aren’t.

There are still four Master Class sessions to go. The next one will be Tuesday at 2pm ET, covering the NLRB and the Uncertain State of Labor Law. There is no charge to participate. CLE and HR credits are available. You can register here.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

© 2023 Todd Lebowitz, posted on, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.


Say What? Would the FTC Noncompete Ban Apply to Independent Contractors?

Her poor family and dog.

When writing, precision is important. So is grammar. A missing comma can change the entire meaning of a sentence, as Ms. Ray’s possibly sautéed relatives can attest, once they have been sufficiently glazed and garnished.

When used properly, commas can separate multiple items in a series. And in the FTC’s proposed new noncompete rule, when it comes to defining “worker,” there are multiple items in a series.

So let’s get right to it: Would the FTC’s proposed rule prohibit non-competes with independent contractors?

Yes, if the independent contractor is a “natural person.”

The rule covers restrictions on individuals, not entities. The rule covers contracts with individuals, not entities. The rule would not affect non-competes with a single member LLC, if you contracted with the entity. You could still prevent the entity from competing since the entity is not a natural person. (At least, under the proposed version.)

But remember, a non-compete with an LLC probably would not prevent the individual from competing as an individual or under the banner of a different single member LLC. If the contract attempted to restrict the individual too, the proposed rule would likely apply to that restriction.

Here’s how the proposed rule defines worker — with lots of commas:

(f) Worker means a natural person who works, whether paid or unpaid, for an employer. The term includes, without limitation, an employee, individual classified as an independent contractor, extern, intern, volunteer, apprentice, or sole proprietor who provides a service to a client or customer.

There are a few other things you need to know.

What would be prohibited? The rule would prohibit employers from:

  • entering into or attempting to enter into a noncompete with a worker;
  • maintaining a noncompete with a worker; or
  • representing to a worker, under certain circumstances, that the worker is subject to a noncompete.

The rule would also require an employer to rescind existing noncompetes and provide individual notice to each worker with a noncompete that it’s no longer active.

Will the rule go into effect? I doubt it.

The FTC will almost certainly pass the rule, or a similar version of the rule, after the public comment period expires. But the rule will then get blocked by the courts as an overreach of the FTC’s authority. Under several legal doctrines, including the major questions doctrine recently adopted by the Supreme Court, a nationwide ban on non-competes is almost certainly action that only could only be taken through Congressional legislation, not by an agency.

What should companies do regarding noncompetes with their independent contractors?

First of all, in most cases you shouldn’t have noncompetes with independent contractors. If the contractor is working on something proprietary and confidential, then maybe. But ordinarily, you should think of your contractor as an independent business that is free to compete in the marketplace. A non-compete clause in an independent contractor agreement could be used to argue that the contractor is misclassified, since non-competes are more characteristic of an employment relationship.

Second, this proposed rule provides another reason that it’s generally best practice is to contract with an entity, not an individual.

Third, I probably wouldn’t do anything right now. Let’s see how this develops. While I expect states to continue to pass legislation that bans or restricts the use of noncompetes, I do not believe the FTC has the same authority. I do not expect this rule ever to take effect. For more Q&As about the proposed rule, click here.

But Todd, what about the songs?

Some of you have reached out to tell me you like the 70s and 80s song references. For today, I would recommend Comma Chameleon by Culture Club, Comma Get Your Love by Redbone, and Comma Eileen by Dexy’s Midnight Runners. You’re welcome.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

© 2023 Todd Lebowitz, posted on, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.


Airbag Jeans? Why You Should Address Disability Accommodations in Your Staffing Agency Agreements

Photo: Mo’cycle

A Swedish company has constructed airbag jeans for motorcyclists, designed to inflate for protection in the event of a crash. The denim-like fabric is water-repellent and abrasion-resistant. You can learn more here.

When riding a motorcycle, it’s smart to anticipate the possibility of injury. The same is true when engaging temps from a staffing agency.

Here’s what I mean. At some point, you’ll have a temp who requires reasonable accommodations for disabilities. The expense to accommodate might be small. But it might not be. Who pays for it, you or the staffing agency?

Last week, the EEOC announced a $119,000 settlement with a staffing company that rejected an applicant because of disabilities. The applicant, who is deaf, had been placed at a client. Before the applicant was to appear for work, a manager at the staffing agency cancelled the assignment, informing the applicant that the client did not have sign language interpreters available. The client, incidentally, was ready and willing to employ the applicant.

The EEOC’s news release doesn’t say whether the applicant actually needed an ASL interpreter or whether the client was planning to pay for one. But providing an ASL interpreter can be a reasonable accommodation. In a staffing agency relationship, who pays for reasonable accommodations needed by temps?

The best advice here is to plan ahead and put on those airbag jeans. Your contract with the staffing agency can address who pays for reasonable accommodations. All it takes is a short clause in the agreement. If the agency is paying, make sure there’s no markup on those expenses. Few staffing agency agreements address who pays for reasonable accommodations. But they should.

If you add a clause, differentiate between Title I and Title III obligations. Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits disability discrimination in employment. That’s the one you want to focus on. Title III of the ADA addresses public accessibility. You’ll pay for the wheelchair ramps and accessible doorways at your facility (Title III), but you may be able to shift the expenses of Title I compliance to the agency.

It’s also a good idea to make sure managers know to involve HR if disability or accommodation issues arise. You don’t want a manager saying “we can’t accommodate that” and ending a temp’s assignment.

Airbag jeans will be sold for $499 a pair. Reasonable accommodations may cost more. Either way, it’s smart to plan ahead and build protections in to your staffing agency agreement.

On March 7, I’ll be speaking at the 10th Annual Labor Relations and Employment Law Master Class Series, addressing recent developments in the contingent workforce area. I’ll be addressing joint employment and staffing agency relationships, and I plan to offer a list of ten items that should be in your staffing agency agreements but probably aren’t

Sign up here to learn more. There is no charge to attend the webinar.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

© 2023 Todd Lebowitz, posted on, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.


Lost Your Bill of Rights? Here’s a New One for New Jersey Temp Workers

What Companies Using Temps In New Jersey Need to Know

According to the National Constitution Center, there were 14 original copies of the Bill of Rights, with one sent to each of the 13 states and another kept by the federal government. The Center also reports, however, that four of the states — Georgia, Maryland, New York, and Pennsylvania — lost their copies. North Carolina’s was stolen by a Union soldier during the Civil War but recovered in 2002 through an FBI sting. (“Hey buddy, I’m lookin’ to buy a Bill of Rights. Ya know anyone?”)

New Jersey kept its copy, but also just added some new stuff. Sort of.

This month, New Jersey passed the Temporary Workers Bill of Rights. It’s less sweeping than the original 1791 Bill of Rights, but it co-opts the important sounding name to get everyone’s attention and to show constituents that the lawmakers are doing really important things that warrant re-election, financial support, the undying love of chatbots, etc.

New Jersey lawmakers love the “Bill of Rights” tag, by the way, having also recently passed a Siblings’ Bill of Rights, a Property Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights, and a Nursing Home Residents’ Bill of Rights.

The Temporary Workers’ Bill of Rights imposes new burdens on staffing agencies and the companies using temp workers. This post will focus on the obligations imposed by the companies using the temp workers.

Does the Bill apply to your industry?

The Bill applies to temp workers assigned by a temp staffing firm to work in any of the following industries, using Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) designations:

  • 33-90000 Other Protective Service Workers
  • 35-0000 Food Preparation and Serving Related Occupations
  • 37-0000 Building and Grounds Cleaning and Maintenance Occupations
  • 39-0000 Personal Care and Service Occupations
  • 47-2060 Construction Laborers
  • 47-30000 Helpers, Construction Trades
  • 49-0000 Installation, Maintenance, and Repair Occupations
  • 51-0000 Production Occupations
  • 53-0000 Transportation and Material Moving Occupations

If you’re not in one of these industries, stop reading and get on with your day.

What obligations does the Bill impose on the users of temp labor?

1. Equal Pay. This sounds fair but may be problematic in practice. Temp workers must be paid “not less than the average rate of pay and average cost of benefits, or the cash equivalent thereof” of the user’s similarly situated employees.

I see two immediate problems here.

First, one of the benefits of using a staffing agency is the ability to pay the temps less until they prove themselves and earn an offer of direct hire. No longer. Now you’ll have to pay the same amount as you pay your regular workers, plus the markup.

Second, how is the staffing agency going to know the wages paid to your similarly situated regular workers and the value of the benefits package you provide them? Presumably you’ll have to tell the staffing agency.

But the staffing agency is not your confidant or fiduciary. It has multiple clients, probably including your competitors. Do you really want the staffing agency to know what your cost of insurance is, or what you pay your regular workers, or the full suite of benefits you offer? The staffing agency will have to adjust what it charges you — and your competitors — based on what each of its clients pay their similarly situated worker. That sounds like a pretty useful set of data for anyone wanting to know what competitors are doing.

You can (and should) designate this information as confidential when disclosing it to a staffing agency, and you should make sure your staffing agency agreement includes an obligation to protect confidential information. But is the information really that safe from prying eyes? If a competitor or temp worker is involved in litigation, couldn’t this information be subject to subpoena? Once you reveal this information, you lose a good bit of control over it.

2. Freedom to direct hire. Under the new law, temp workers must be free to accept offers of direct hire. Staffing agencies cannot restrict the workers’ ability to accept offers of direct hire. The agency can impose a “placement fee” on its client (you), but the amount is limited by statute.

The amount of the placement fee cannot exceed “the equivalent of the total daily commission rate the temporary help service firm would have received over a 60-day period, reduced by the equivalent of the daily commission rate the temporary help service firm would have received for each day the temporary laborer has performed work for the temporary help service firm in the preceding 12 months.”

For purposes of contracting, any provisions prohibiting direct hire for limited periods of time need to be removed. Instead, staffing contracts (in NJ, for these job classifications) should permit direct hire but may charge a permitted placement fee.

3. Reimbursement of tax obligations. The user of services is required to reimburse the temp agency for wages and “related payroll taxes.” Presumably this is already basked into the markup, but now it’s required.

4. Joint and several liability. The law imposes joint liability for any violations of the equal pay or direct hire provisions. Consider what that means for equal pay. You might have to disclose to the temp agency what you pay your similarly situated employees, but you don’t control the temp agency’s payroll practices. If they mess up and pay the temp worker less than the law requires, the law says you’ll be jointly liable.

Who said anything about fair?

Be sure your staffing agency agreement includes robust indemnity provisions. The agreement should also create a contractual obligation for the temp agency to pay workers all amounts they are due under the law so that, if the agency fails to do so, you can point to a breach of contract when seeking indemnity. Indemnity claims based purely on the law could be subject to challenge since the law also says there is joint liability.


This Temporary Workers’ Bill of Rights applies only to certain industries in New Jersey but, for users of temps in these industries, the law creates important new obligations.

For violations, the law allows for a private right of action and carries a six-year statute of limitations.

If you use temp labor in New Jersey in one of the covered industries, be sure you understand the new requirements. This would be a good time to go back and revisit your staffing agency agreements. They may need some tidying up.

Also consider requiring temp workers to sign individual arbitration agreements as a condition of being placed at your worksite. This strategy can help insulate you from a class action filed against both the temp agency and your company. Class actions against both entities are a particular concern, given the joint liability section of the new law.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

© 2023 Todd Lebowitz, posted on, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.


Today’s Tip: Do Look Back, When Drafting Arbitration Agreements

“Don’t Look Back” was the title track on Boston’s second album, released in 1978. The album version came in at six minutes, but a radio edit brough it down to four.

This is a practice I never understood. People used to listen to the radio for hours at a time, but six minutes was too long for one song? Why is it better to ingest two three-minute songs per six minutes than one six-minute song? But maybe I’m the wrong person to ask. My idea of an excellent album is Tales from Topographic Oceans by Yes. The album consists of four songs, each about 20 minutes long, and was inspired by a footnote in a book about Hindu texts by the yogi Paramahansa Yogananda.

But this is getting way off track.

I chose “Don’t Look Back” as the theme for today’s post because it’s good advice for life, but bad advice for drafting arbitration agreements.

For businesses that make widespread use of independent contractors, one of the best strategies for protecting against misclassification claims is by having a robust arbitration agreement with a class action waiver. But too many times those agreements don’t look back.

Lately I’ve seen a couple of decisions in which arbitration agreements were found not to cover particular claims, when those claims arose from events that happened before the agreement was signed. I think those cases were wrongly decided, since arbitration covers the process for resolving disputes, regardless of when they arise. But it makes good sense to draft in a way that cuts off this line of attack.

I have recently started adding a sentence to my arbitration agreements that goes something like this: “Covered disputes also include disputes relating to past events, including those that predate this Agreement.”

Today’s tip is to go back and look at your arbitration agreements. If they aren’t clear about covering claims based on earlier events, consider adding this clarification next time you update the agreement.

Now for those of you who would like an earworm for the day, here you go:

Don't look back, ooh, a new day is breakin'
It's been too long since I felt this way
I don't mind, ooh, where I get taken
The road is callin', today is the day

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

© 2023 Todd Lebowitz, posted on, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.


Like a Lead Balloon: Cities Aim to Take Down Worker Misclassification

This headline does not refer to the Chinese spy ballon.

Instead, I’m thinking about 1968. Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones had joined up to form a new band after the breakup of the Yardbirds. Drummer Keith Moon of The Who supposedly said the project would go down like a lead balloon.

One of the largest balloons, of course, is the zeppelin. The zeppelin was a passenger airship used until the Hindenberg disaster in 1937. So the band named itself Led Zeppelin, dropping the ‘a’ in Lead so people wouldn’t mispronounce the name of the band.

In 1971, the band released Led Zeppelin IV, which included the song “Going to California” and this lyric:

Spent my days with a woman unkind
Smoked my stuff and drank all my wine
Made up my mind to make a new start
Going to California with an aching in my heart

For today’s post, I’m going to California with an aching in my heart.

Cities in California have upped their game when going after companies that use independent contractors. They’re taking the lead (not led) in bringing their own lawsuits.

In January 2023, the City of San Francisco secured a $5.25 million settlement to cover 5,000 independent contractor delivery drivers. The lawsuit alleged a failure to comply with the city’s health care security and paid sick leave ordinances, which apply to employees.

In October 2022, San Diego’s city attorney settled its own independent contractor misclassification lawsuit for $46.5 million. That deal covered 300,000 independent contractor delivery drivers.

In 2021, San Francisco reached agreement on another delivery driver misclassification lawsuit, settling for $5.3 million to cover 4,500 local drivers.

The mountains and the canyons start to tremble and shake
The children of the sun begin to awake (watch out)

States are following a similar playbook, as we recently saw when New Jersey obtained a $100 million settlement, alleging that a rideshare app company failed to pay into the state unemployment insurance fund for independent contractor drivers.

It seems that the wrath of the gods got a punch on the nose
And it's startin' to flow, I think I might be sinkin'

Government-initiated lawsuits can be particularly dangerous because arbitration agreements and class action waivers are ineffective. The governments are fighting for funds they think are rightfully theirs.

They also have political motives driving their prosecutions. Officials facing re-election want to be able to show their constituents they’re making a difference and fighting for workers’ rights (and ignoring, as usual, the fact that most IC drivers want to remain ICs).

Throw me a line, if I reach it in time
I'll meet you up there where the path runs straight and high

The trend of government-backed compliance efforts is going to continue and will likely increase. Companies making widespread use of independent contractors should be proactive in evaluating these relationships, the contracts, and the local laws to build a comprehensive defense strategy — before getting sued.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

© 2023 Todd Lebowitz, posted on, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.


It’s That Time Again! Our 10th Annual Master Class Starts Feb. 7th.

Please join me and my colleagues for the 10th Annual Master Class Series on Labor Relations and Employment Law. The 2023 program will be offered virtually on Tuesdays from Feb. 7 through April 11, 2023. Sessions are one hour, 2-3pm ET.

This years’s topics include:

  • The New Employment Laws: Out with the Old and In with the Unknown
  • Remote Work in Transition: Trends and Compliance Considerations
  • The New Union Organizing Model: The Force of Gen Z
  • Debriefing the Dobbs Decision: Unpacking What Employers Face in the Aftermath of the Overturning of Roe v. Wade
  • Contingent Workforce Update: The Gamemakers Are At It Again
  • Workplace Privacy: The Ever-Increasing Risks of Breaches and Maintaining Data and Information
  • Back to the Future Part II: The NLRB and the Uncertain State of Labor Law
  • Take the Target Off Your Back: Avoiding Common Wage and Hour Practices That May Lead to Litigation
  • Federal Agencies Are Talking About You – and You Can’t Just Ignore It Anymore
  • Unique Issues in Workplace Investigations: Not Your Typical ‘How To’

I will be presenting on March 7, 2023:

Contingent Workforce Update: The Gamemakers Are At It Again

In The Hunger Games, Seneca Crane and Plutarch Heavensbee make up
the rules for the games as they go along. The players never quite know what they’re getting into. While companies in the contingent workforce space don’t face literal death upon a misclassification or joint employment finding, the ramifications can be pretty harsh. Taking their cue from the gamemakers, the Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board keep changing the rules of the game. The states are updating their tests too. Learn what’s changing in 2023, and may the odds be ever in your favor.

Register here as my guest, or paste this link into your browser:

There is no charge to attend. All sessions are virtual.

Feel free to invite your colleagues or other connections, including outside of your organization. When you register, please include my name as your BakerHostetler contact.

I look forward to seeing you then!

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

© 2023 Todd Lebowitz, posted on, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.


DOL Gets Aggressive with $5.6 Million Consent Judgment on Independent Contractor Misclassification

There’s an island in Quebec that’s larger in area than the lake in which it sits. René-Levasseur Island was supposedly formed by the impact of a meteorite 214 million years ago, although eyewitness accounts differ. The land mass became an island in 1970, when the Manicougan reservoir was flooded, merging two crescent shaped lakes that surrounded the area.

I like fun geography facts, and an island larger than the lake in which it sits is a fun fact. But feels a bit aggressive for the Canadians to merge two crescent shaped lakes to turn this land mass into an island. I’m sure they had their reasons. If nothing else, it looks good on a map.

The Department of Labor is also being aggressive, but they’re not flooding any reservoirs. Instead, they’re channeling their aggression toward independent contractor misclassification.

In a news release this month, the DOL announced that it had obtained a consent judgment for $5.6 million against a national auto parts distributor and an Arizona logistics firm for allegedly misclassifying 1,398 drivers as independent contractors. The award included back wages and liquidated damages.

The DOL had alleged that, by misclassifying the drivers, the companies failed to meet minimum wage requirements, failed to pay overtime rates, and failed to keep required timekeeping records. These failures each were violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

The award covered an eight-year period between April 2012 and March 2020.

I see three takeaways here:

First, the DOL is being aggressive in filing lawsuits when it thinks independent contractors have been misclassified. This consent judgment shows how expensive these claims can be for companies that improperly classify workers. Companies using independent contractors needs to be proactive in evaluating their risks and taking steps to minimize those risks. There are lots of ways to reduce risk if you plan ahead, before you’ve been sued or investigated.

Second, this case is a reminder that companies who classify delivery drivers as independent contractors are at heightened risk. Federal and state agencies and the plaintiffs’ bar seem to be filing a disproportionate number of claims involving delivery drivers. If your business uses delivery drivers who are classified as independent contractors, you may be at an increased risk of an audit or lawsuit.

Third, remember the DOL’s proposed new rule for independent contractor classification under the FLSA? (Read more here, here, and here.) The DOL wants to change the current test for who is an employee under the FLSA, replacing a regulation adopted by the Trump Administration in 2020. But cases like this one show that the current regulation is not impairing the DOL’s ability to enforce what it perceives as misclassification. The DOL’s many recent successes — as posted in DOL news releases — show that the DOL is doing just fine under the current rule when it comes to misclassification enforcement. The new rule is a solution without a problem.

Large judgments like this one seem shocking, but they are a reminder of the substantial dangers of misclassification.

Learn more by joining me at the 10th Annual 2023 BakerHostetler Labor Relations and Employment Law Master Class, all virtual, one hour every Tuesday starting February 7, 2023. My program on Contingent Workforce issues will be on March 7, 2023. Registration is free.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

© 2023 Todd Lebowitz, posted on, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.


Dead or Alive? Contractor Dispute Leads to Important Ohio Decision on Agency Deference

An author of romance novels died in 2020, committing suicide after online bullying. Or so it seemed. But a few days ago, Susan Meachen posted on Facebook to say she was back. Not in a risen-from-the-grave sort of way. She says she faked her own death and is very much alive. The story has been covered by CNN and BBC, and I don’t know whether anyone has yet figured out whether Meachen died or someone is now posting under her name.

One thing that seems more clearly dead, though, is the legal principle of agency deference in Ohio. This important decision arose out of a contractor dispute.

In a 7-0 decision, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that under Ohio law, the judiciary is never [italics in original] required to defer to an administrative agency’s interpretation of the law, even if the statute is ambiguous. Only the judiciary has the authority to interpret the law for purposes of a judicial proceeding.

The Court held that an agency’s interpretation of the law is merely one view that a court may consider. The Court also stressed that an agency’s interpretation of common words is entirely irrelevant since courts are well equipped to interpret common words. Deference to an agency’s interpretation will depend on how persuasive a court finds the agency’s interpretation to be. A court might be more likely to defer if there is an ambiguity over a technical matter over which the agency has expertise, but even then, deference is never required.

I have attached an annotated copy of the opinion.

Here are some excerpts. These are quotes:

  • The judicial branch is never required to defer to an agency’s interpretation of the law. As we explain, an agency interpretation is simply one consideration a court may sometimes take into account in rendering the court’s own independent judgment as to what the law is.
  • First, it is never mandatory for a court to defer to the judgment of an administrative agency. Under our system of separation of powers, it is not appropriate for a court to turn over its interpretative authority to an administrative agency..
  • Now assume that a court does find ambiguity and determines to consider an administrative interpretation along with other tools of interpretation. The weight, if any, the court assigns to the administrative interpretation should depend on the persuasive power of the agency’s interpretation and not on the mere fact that it is being offered by an administrative agency. A court may find agency input informative; or the court may find the agency position unconvincing. What a court may not do is outsource the interpretive project to a coordinate branch of government.

The case arose when an engineering firm applied for an engineering license in Ohio. Seems uneventful, except the firm listed an independent contractor as its full-time manager. Ohio law requires a firm to identify a responsible full-time manager to receive a license. The Ohio Board of Registration for Professional Engineers and Surveyors denied the license on the grounds that a full-time manager could not be an independent contractor. The Board said that a manager had to be a W2 employee.

But the statute requires only that there be a full-time manager. It doesn’t say who can be a manager. The Board determined that an independent contractor could not be a “full-time manager” because independent contractors (if properly classified) are not controlled by their client. In other words, how could the firm be managed by someone it cannot control?

That’s a great question from a practical standpoint. If the contractor is properly classified, it might be a terrible idea to designate an independent contractor as your firm’s full-time manager. But that doesn’t mean it’s prohibited by the licensing statute.

The Ohio Supreme Court explained that the statute requires the Board (“shall”) to grant a license when a firm identifies a full-time manager and meets the other criteria. The Court ruled that the Board, as an administrative agency, has no right to impose additional requirements that are not in the statute, such as that the full-time manager cannot be an independent contractor.

The Court used this dispute to lay down a marker on an important issue of law — When must a court defer to an agency’s interpretation of the law? In Ohio, the answer is never.

This issue comes up often at the federal level too, and you’ll hear a lot more about this issue following the recent announcement by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that it plans to pass a regulation making non-compete agreements illegal. The FTC probably does not have the legal authority to do that. A law to prohibit non-competes would almost definitely have to come from the legislature, not an executive agency. If the FTC goes through with its plan, the issue is likely to end up in front of a federal court, which is likely to rule that the FTC does not have this authority. The US Supreme Court’s conservative majority has sent signals that it will be less inclined to defer to agencies than in the past, and it would not be surprising to see the US Supreme Court issue a ruling at some point that looks a lot like this Ohio decision.

The bottom line here is that the era of agencies making new law through regulation may be coming to an end. Agencies can interpret ambiguities in statutes, and they can provide more detail about legal requirements when authorized to do so. But they cannot impose new requirements when not specifically authorized to do so. The path taken by the Ohio Supreme Court may be a sign of similar things to come at the federal level.

In terms of typical independent contractor issues, this post is a bit off topic. But the issue is an important one, and it arose out of a contractor dispute, so I just decided to just go for it and write this post, whether it’s what you were expecting or not.

Kind of like Susan Meachen did recently when she posted on Facebook. Or didn’t post. We still don’t really know.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

© 2023 Todd Lebowitz, posted on, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.